Unlikely Lovers Book 1
by Cheryl Brooks
When passion is given free rein…
Farrier Travis York has found his dream woman in nurse and horse breeder Miranda Jackson until he spots her wedding ring. He attempts to deny the attraction, but Miranda has already captured his heart.
A widow with an autistic child, Miranda wears her ring as a deterrent to suitors. Although smitten with Travis, she can’t believe the handsome younger man could ever be more than eye candy.
When Travis discovers Miranda’s widowhood, she acknowledges the attraction but still sees the age difference as an obstacle. An intense sexual encounter has Travis hearing wedding bells until a bump on the head leaves Miranda wondering what the hell she missed…
Book 1 of the Unlikely Lovers series of erotic contemporary romance by Cheryl Brooks, author of The Cat Star Chronicles series and the Cowboy Heaven series.
Miranda Jackson hadn’t braved the chill of a late October cold snap for a riding lesson at Nigel Mirren’s stable simply because she loved horses. Nor was she there to see Nigel—although the lanky Englishman never failed to make her laugh. No, the real reason was at the other end of the barn putting new shoes on Ghost, Nigel’s sturdy Irish gelding. Miranda would have endured far greater hardships than cold weather for the chance to catch a glimpse of Travis York.
With the temperatures below freezing, Miranda’s feet sat like two chunks of ice in the stirrups, and Kira’s breath froze in the air as the mare trotted around the sandy expanse of the indoor arena. Still, Miranda considered it worth the discomfort. The sweet smile she would receive from Travis afterward would warm her all the way to her frozen toes.
Too bad a smile was all she would ever receive from him. He was completely adorable and one of the nicest men she’d ever met, but being at least fifteen years her junior, he would never see her as a potential girlfriend. In her experience, handsome young men had no interest in forty-five-year-old widows—aside from the fact that she suspected that the “interesting news” he’d hinted at earlier involved another woman. She’d asked Nigel about it, but he didn’t seem to know a thing and quickly changed the subject to the loss of yet another fabulous horse he couldn’t afford.
“You would have loved him, Miranda,” Nigel lamented. “He was big and bold and had a stride five yards long.” He heaved a deep sigh of regret. “Absolutely beautiful.”
“I’m sure he was,” Miranda agreed. “Fifty thousand dollars worth of beautiful. Why do you even bother looking at those pricey horses? All it does is make you depressed.” Miranda had stopped dreaming about Hanoverians and Dutch warmbloods a long time ago. Her nursing salary might’ve paid the bills, but it certainly didn’t allow for major splurges.
“I can bloody well dream, can’t I?” he protested. “And who knows? I might win the lottery some day.”
“I wouldn’t count on it. Besides, you have to play to win.”
To hear Nigel tell it, he’d never had a dollar to spare for a lottery ticket in his life, and the slightly dilapidated nature of his stable and arenas proved it. Several of the arena’s overhead lights were burned out, and feathery strips of disintegrating insulation dangled from the underside of the barn’s metal roof, which also had a tendency to leak.
Miranda had done her best to contribute to Nigel’s finances, seldom missing a lesson while at the same time hoping to provide him with a less expensive alternative to the type of horses he normally drooled over. “If you could just hang on until next spring when Arwen turns three, I’ll sell her to you cheap and you’ll be getting a nice horse for a lot less money. Then all you have to do is train her and she’ll be ready for the next Olympics.” At least, that was the theory behind Miranda’s little breeding project—supplying crossbred horses for those who simply couldn’t afford an expensive European warmblood.
“If I live that long.” It was no secret that while Nigel had come close to making the big time often enough, he had been eliminated by some injury to either himself or his horse every time. Fate, it seemed, was against him. He sighed again. “Okay, Miranda. Get that big mare going. I’m ready to be impressed.”
Miranda wasn’t sure she’d ever impressed Nigel. Most of his students won ribbons for their riding, but it was never Miranda’s intention to make a big splash on the show circuit. More interested in the breeding end of the horse business, all she really wanted to do was increase her skill as a trainer—and Nigel was one of the best. During the three years she’d been his student, she’d gotten loads of useful tips from him, and as she improved, so had her horses.
Even though she was hot and sweaty by the time her half hour was up, her feet were still numb with cold when she jumped to the ground. Shivering as the moisture cooled on her skin, she led Kira back to the barn where, to her delight, she heard the clang of Travis’s hammer.
“Hey, Kira,” she said, giving the mare a nudge. “Guess who’s still here? Yummy Mr. Travis Adorable York. My day is now complete.”
Kira turned her head briefly. If you say so, she seemed to say. I could not possibly care less.
“Oh, come on, Kira. Don’t you think he’s cute?”
The mare ignored the question as though it were beneath her to respond.
“You’re no fun at all,” Miranda grumbled. “If he was some hotshot Thoroughbred stallion, you’d notice him, wouldn’t you?”
Kira glanced at her with a wrinkled brow and kept walking. That question didn’t require an answer, either. Of course she would notice someone like that.
Travis might never see Miranda in a romantic light, but that didn’t stop her from looking, which was a relatively new pastime for her. Her husband Kris had died in a helicopter crash while serving in the Marines, leaving her with a broken heart and their mildly autistic son, Levi. The horror stories of men abusing their girlfriends’ children were enough to keep her from looking for a new man, even if she’d wanted one. Which she hadn’t. Levi was the only part of Kris she had left. Risking his safety was not an option.
Kris Jackson had been the love of her life, and getting over his death had taken a very long time. She’d continued to wear her wedding ring not only as a symbol of their love, but also as a deterrent to would-be suitors. As the years passed and her grief waned, the ring became so much a part of her hand she didn’t even think about it anymore.
Now that Levi was grown, she’d considered dating again, but never seemed to find the time or the inclination—aside from the fact that no one had interested her at all—until she’d met Travis. Unfortunately, due to the difference in their ages, she didn’t see him as a viable option. He was friendly eye candy, nothing more—at least, that was what she told herself. Quite often her imagination took her places she had no business going—and the fact that Travis ranked right up there with Godiva Chocolate on the eye candy scale didn’t help matters.
She’d thought about having him shoe her own horses, but she’d been with David Sherman for years and didn’t want to hurt his feelings by using another farrier. No, this way was much better. She could chat with Travis while he worked, and he would never even notice how much she drooled.
She led Kira through the enormous barn and up to the cross-tie area where Travis was shoeing a stocky chestnut gelding.
He glanced up as she approached. “How’d it go?”
Miranda shrugged, rolling her eyes. “I made Nigel scream.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“I’m not sure,” she replied, frowning. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. Today it was hard to tell. It could be that I’m not cut out to be a dressage rider.”
“What makes you think that?” he asked, fitting a shoe in place. “I’ve seen you ride, and you look pretty good to me.”
He drove in two nails before she answered him.
“I’m not disciplined enough,” she finally said. “When I first became interested in dressage, I thought it was so cool and looked so easy. What I didn’t realize was that beneath the facade of simply sitting on the horse doing nothing was a hell of a lot of hard work and total concentration. I don’t think I have the right mindset for it, but I keep trying.” After exchanging Kira’s bridle for a halter, she snapped the cross-ties to it. “That’s all I know, Travis. Are you ready to tell me the big news?”
His deep blue eyes twinkled with mischief, but that grin of his nearly stopped her heart. “I’ve got a date lined up. She’s an obstetrician—supposed to be real pretty, too.”
“Supposed to be?” Miranda echoed. “You mean you’ve never seen her?” Why this absolutely adorable man would have to resort to blind dates was beyond Miranda’s comprehension. Women should’ve had to buy raffle tickets for the chance to go out with him.
He nodded. “I know. I’ll probably be sorry, but a client of mine is sure she’ll be perfect for me.”
Miranda let out a long sigh. She could have told him that he didn’t need to look any further than the woman standing next to him to find a new girlfriend, but Miranda had no guts whatsoever when it came to such things.
“Well, she could be.” He’d obviously misinterpreted the reason for her sigh. “It’d be stupid not to even meet her, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose so.” Miranda resigned herself to yet another stint at playing Mother Confessor rather than the love interest—she’d even listened to the details of his brother’s divorce—doing her best to ignore the twinge of regret nagging at her heart. Forget it, Miranda. You’re too old for him. “Okay, then. Tell me all about her.”
“I don’t know a whole lot.” He grunted as he clinched the nails. “She’s about my age, pretty, and recently divorced.”
“Does she like horses?”
“I don’t know,” he said after a moment’s pause. “I guess that’s something I’ll find out when I meet her.”
“Do you know anything about her divorce?”
“Not much.” Switching to the rasp, he filed down the clinches on the nails. “Just that I’ll be the first man she’s gone out with since it was finalized.”
Miranda giggled as she unbuckled Kira’s girth. He was in for so much trouble…
After setting down the newly shod hoof, Travis straightened up, giving the horse a pat on the shoulder. “What’s so funny?”
“Depending on the reason for her divorce, she’ll either hold a grudge against you for being a man at all or she’ll pounce on you.”
Long dimples creased his cheeks when he grinned, sending Miranda’s temperature skyrocketing. Her frozen feet were already forgotten. “Dunno about the grudge,” he said with a lazy drawl, “but I wouldn’t mind being pounced on.”
The mere thought of being the one doing the pouncing made Miranda’s mouth go dry. Reaching for the bottle of water stashed in her tote bag, she took a long drink. If she’d had to guess, the amount of time an obstetrician had to spend on a boyfriend was probably comparable to what Miranda’s lawyer friend Christina Minks had available, which wasn’t much. “Good luck. Let me know how it turns out.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll do that.”
Pulling off Kira’s saddle, she watched him covertly from behind the big mare. Why would anyone like Travis need luck or have to resort to blind dates? He should have already been married with a cute little wife and a pack of children blessed with his good looks and sandy blond hair—and maybe even that birthmark at the base of his neck. She’d noticed it during the summer and had thought it was a hickey until she realized it never faded. Now all it did was make Miranda itch to give him another one to match it. Oh, yes, he could pounce on her anytime he liked. Too bad he would probably never get the urge.
Already anxious to see him again the next week, Miranda packed up her gear, loaded Kira in the trailer, and headed for home. On the way, she stopped for gas at the convenience store where her son worked. At twenty-two, Levi had become much more independent, learning to drive and living in his own apartment, and though she did her best not to make it seem like she was checking up on him, she was still his legal guardian.
She never ceased to be amazed at her son’s accomplishments, celebrating every triumph and cheering him on to the next. Her only regret was that his father hadn’t lived long enough to see it, nor had he been there for much of his early childhood. Thanks to his excellent memory, Levi could still remember Kris, but the memories were few.
Miranda’s own memories had faded. True, she still recalled her husband’s smile, the sound of his voice, and almost everything they’d ever done together—the high school prom, the graduation parties, their wedding, the birth of their son—but the touch of his hand had grown quite distant.
In recent years, Miranda had been introduced to several men and hadn’t accepted a date from a single one of them. Her friends’ examples were quite enough to deter her—not to mention the horror stories she’d heard from her sister, Tracy. Mary Beth’s husband had left her for another woman. Lola had been married three times in the years Miranda had known her, and they’d all been losers—helpful and kind at first, but then increasingly unreliable or controlling once the marriage was official. And those were just the first two that came to mind. No. It wasn’t worth the trouble. Far better to stick to eye candy like Travis York than have to put up with that.
* * * *
Travis’s father had often remarked that any man who would steal another man’s wife deserved to be shot. Unfortunately, Travis had already been smitten with Miranda long before he’d spotted her wedding ring. The fact that she was a few years older than him hadn’t bothered him a bit, and once he’d figured out that she had a riding lesson every Tuesday, he’d made a point of scheduling his appointments at Nigel’s stable accordingly.
He’d spent every Tuesday in February trying to decide if she returned his interest or not. Finally, on a balmy day in March, he was all set to ask her out when she returned from her lesson and pulled off her riding gloves. The plain gold band on her left hand had dashed his hopes completely. He should have known it the moment he’d realized how much he looked forward to seeing her every week. The good ones were always taken.
He thought he’d done the smart thing when he married Janie Fredricks right after high school. The prettiest girl in their class, Janie was popular, an excellent student, and Travis adored her. Then he found out the hard way that marrying your high school sweetheart didn’t always guarantee happiness—particularly when said sweetheart was sleeping with your best friend.
Travis had broken up with his last girlfriend not long before that first chance meeting with Miranda. If his attraction to her had been one of those rebound things, he thought he should’ve gotten over it once he realized Miranda was married. He hadn’t. God knew he’d tried, but no woman had ever affected him as strongly, and now here she was again, looking every bit as good in those tight breeches as a woman half her age.
She’d been the star of his sexual fantasies for so long, he couldn’t lay eyes on her without mentally tangling his fingers in her chestnut hair and pulling her down for a kiss. Although he’d never touched her, his hands seemed to know the contours of her body and the texture of her skin. He’d gone through the motions of dating other women, all the while craving the warmth of Miranda’s smile and the touch of her hand.
Despite what he’d said, his hopes weren’t high when he met Dr. Shelley Masters for dinner, though she turned out to be everything Dan Tolliver had said she’d be—attractive, intelligent, pleasant—if not particularly exciting. Still, three out of four wasn’t bad, and he’d liked her enough to ask her out again. Who knows, she might even turn out to be exciting. Eventually.
Travis had been told he was too picky—which wasn’t true at all. He’d liked every woman he’d ever dated; he simply hadn’t fallen in love. Perhaps that was Janie’s fault. He’d given her his heart, and she’d stomped on it. Unfortunately, that pattern had repeated itself. Frequently. He hadn’t given up hope yet, but since he’d met Miranda, no one had measured up to her. Shelley was no exception.
He knew it was stupid; he’d never even dated Miranda and knew comparatively little about her. Still, she’d become the ideal woman in his eyes, an unattainable goal that made everything else seem pointless.
But it wasn’t pointless. He would find her equal someday and live happily ever after.
Yeah, right. Like I’ll ever get that lucky. Travis wouldn’t wish the pain of divorce on anyone, but he had an idea that catching her on the rebound would be the best thing that ever happened to him. Unfortunately, he’d never heard her utter a single word of complaint about her husband—what was his name? Levi? Still, if Miranda ever needed comforting—or anything else, for that matter—he was her man.
Too bad he could never tell her that.
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